Since we seem to be heading into a warming trend, I thought I’d share the odds ‘n’ ends of what I’m calling The Big Freeze, those recent days of frigid temperatures and wind. In the interests of preserving my camera and my numb fingers, my hikes during the Big Freeze were shorter and the photos were fewer.
But as usual, I delighted in the sightings or even the signs and traces of other creatures, including other humans, who shared the bitter temperatures with me. On those frigid, silent days, I found myself appreciating the slightest visual treat that passed unnoticed in the lushness of summer – a rock, a mud puddle, snow-covered mushrooms. So here’s a sampling from Bear Creek and Charles Ilsley Parks of what can make a walk worthwhile even on the zero degree days of a challenging winter.
Wildlife Braving The Big Freeze
Birds are rarer sights for me on super cold winter walks, so what a treat to come across a flock of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum)on two different walks at Bear Creek Nature Park. The high-pitched whistling as these winter social groups swooped and settled was quite cheering during The Big Freeze. Here are some other creatures that shared those bitter morning walks with me.
Though I heard more creatures deep in the brambles and watched birds fly overhead, I only caught a few with my camera. Some animals only left their tracks behind. On a bird walk at Charles Ilsley Park, we saw the neat tracks of two coyotes who’d trotted along in the moonlight the night before. Coyotes make straight, single tracks, placing their back feet in the tracks of their front feet to save energy. One of the birders said he’d heard that the coyote’s tail can leave a slight drag line as seen in the closeup below. I couldn’t find a source for that, but it makes sense since coyotes run with their tails down, rather than up like wolves or dogs. Click on the photos to enlarge; hover your cursor for captions. (Coyote photo below by amandaandmike at inaturalist.org)
A Meadow Vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus), aka a Meadow Mouse, must have crossed the path at Bear Creek Nature Park on a snowy night and then disappeared by burrowing into the snow. Lucky for this little creature that the coyote wasn’t around! (Meadow Vole photo by Wolfgang Siebeneich at inaturalist.org.)
Meadow Vole tracks disappear into the snow
Meadow Vole by Wolfgang Siebeneich (CC BY-NC)
I’ve never seen a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) at Bear Creek Nature Park, though others have. But I did see the hole one had recently excavated in a tree in the Oak- Hickory forest there – with this “carpenter’s” wood chips scattered below. (Woodpecker photo kindly lent by Joan Bonin, a gifted local photographer.)
Holes excavated by a Pileated Woodpecker.
The wood chips left at the foot of the tree
Pileated Woodpeckerer, photo by Joan Bonin
Evidence of Humans at Play During the Big Freeze
It’s always cheering to come upon evidence of other people using our parks to just play in the snow.
Odds ‘n’ Ends that Caught My Winter Eye
The austerity of winter reveals landscape features unnoticed in the lushness of spring and summer. The birding group marveled at a fast-running spring flowing out into the snow at Charles Ilsley Park which had been dry or hidden in the dense growth of the field the rest of the year.
At sunset one afternoon, I rounded the corner of the shed at Bear Creek Nature Park and saw a pink and blue sunset glowing in a puddle of melted snow.
The graceful “bones” of last year’s wildflowers, clusters of half-moon shelf mushrooms, even an unusual rock catch my eye when framed in white. (Use pause button if you need more time for captions.)
Beauty in the Big Freeze: Appreciating the Small Things
Sometimes it’s just the pale green and lavender of ice in a wetland or the high whistle of a swoop of Cedar Waxwings. The scarlet flash of a Cardinal or a dancing snowman can lift your heart on gray winter day. Feathery snow settling on a seed pod or the gaudy beauty of an early sunset – it’s just a matter of taking in beauty in smaller, more subtle doses that can buoy our spirits in the dark cold of a Michigan winter.
Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide and I both got inspired by the idea of a year-end reflection on some of the remarkable sights in our parks and natural areas over the last year. Nature excels in surprising and delighting any curious observer with its ability to come back from adversity, in some cases to even thrive in difficult circumstances. That ability to keep on growing and creating in the face of any obstacle can be a great inspiration in challenging times.
So as the snow falls, please sit back in a comfortable chair with a warm drink and savor some highlights from the four seasons of 2017 here in Oakland Township.
Winter 2017: Serenity Rises as the Snow Falls
Sometimes we just need a little less hubbub after the holidays and the parks provide a peaceful escape. In general, the only sounds are the wind in bare branches, the occasional calls of the year ’round birds and the tapping of energetic woodpeckers foraging in the tree bark. And other times, when we feel a bit house-bound and crave crisp air on red cheeks, a winter walk provides little discoveries unavailable in other seasons. During one deep freeze last winter, the weekly birding group stepped out on the ice at Cranberry Lake to inspect a beaver lodge. And a few weeks later, I plopped down in the snow for a closer look at 3-D ice dendrites standing upright on a frozen puddle! Folks enjoyed the fine skating rink at Marsh View Park, but some who fancied wild surroundings skated on Twin Lake. On sunny winter days, shadows are always sharp and any spot of color, like the brilliant red of a male cardinal, catches my eye in winter’s clear, white light. Hiking in winter can be wonderful; just be sure you’re bundled up for it! (Click on pause button for longer captions.)
Spring 2017: Buds, First Blooms, Migrators Flying in by Night and the Ebullient Symphony of Courting Birds and Frogs
Ah, mud-luscious spring! The tiny Chorus and Wood Frogs thawed out after their winter freeze and sang lustily from vernal ponds. In early spring, the birders spotted a crayfish at Bear Creek who’d climbed out of her chimney with eggs under her tail and was lumbering toward the pond. Some spring avian migrators quickly passed through, and we bird watchers were lucky to spot a few special visitors. An unusual American Pipit appeared before my camera lens one afternoon at Gallagher Creek Park on its way to its breeding grounds in the far north. While others, like the Tree Swallow or the Eastern Meadowlark, settled in for the summer to raise their young. After last year’s controlled burn, native Lupines appeared along the Paint Creek Trail. And in May, Ben spotted a rare sight, a frilly spread of rare Bogbean flowers in a kettle wetland at Bald Mountain State Recreation Area off Kern Road. Snow melt and bright green buds always offer an irresistible invitation to come out and join the bustle and music of spring!
Summer 2017: Butterflies Galore as Restored Prairies Began to Bloom
Summer! The very word conjures up a coloring box assortment of butterflies hovering over prairie wildflowers. Birds constructed their nests and later wore themselves out feeding noisy, demanding fledglings. We birders particularly enjoyed close looks at a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak sharing egg-warming duties near a Bear Creek path. The birders laughed in surprise watching a passive/aggressive pair of Canada Geese successfully discourage the presence of a Green Heron by simply swimming uncomfortably close to it. A family ambled along a path at Draper Twin Lake Park, headed for a morning fishing expedition. The birding group, binoculars in hand, spotted an Indigo Bunting while walking the new paths through the prairies at Charles Ilsley Park, increasingly spangled with colorful native wildflowers as restoration proceeds. A Great Horned Owl stared at the delighted birding group through a scrim of leaves near Bear Creek marsh. Every path in the township hummed with life during the summer months. But that’s what we all expect of summer, right?
Autumn 2017: Birds Departed South, and Fall Wildflowers Bloomed
Tundra Swans flew in formation overhead, as migrators of all kinds, like the Hermit Thrush, rode the north wind down to southern climes. But as they departed, nature offered a consolation. Many native wildflowers bloomed in the cool weather as they faithfully do each year. Asters formed carpets of color everywhere, from meadow to marsh! At the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail, tiny Ladies Tresses orchids, Grass of Parnassus with its delicately striped petals, and vivid purple Fringed Gentian intrigued me again by emerging in the chill of early autumn. Native bumblebees pushed their way into Bottle Gentian flowers at Gallagher Creek Park and the Wet Prairie. Butterflies still sipped nectar from late fall blooms. The birders identified ducks of all kinds assembled in rafts on Cranberry Lake. Rattling cries alerted me to the presence of Belted Kingfishers who scouted for prey at both Bear Creek’s pond and Cranberry Lake. Ben dipped his net into a marsh at Charles Ilsley Park to show us tadpoles that overwinter on the muddy surface beneath the water. So much life as the year 2017 began to ebb!
Parks Full of Life All Year ‘Round. Aren’t We Lucky?
As a direct result of the foresight of township residents who have supported the Parks Commission and land preservation, native plants, wildlife, birds, and a beautifully diverse combination of habitats are being restored and preserved in Oakland Township. I want to share my appreciation for that foresight and for the hard work and knowledge of Ben VanderWeide (my kind and able supervisor and editor), other parks volunteers, my fellow birders and park staff. And at the end of the year, I thank all of you who read, comment on and/or follow Natural Areas Notebook. It’s wonderful to be learning more all the time about the natural world – and then to have this opportunity to share what I’m learning with all of you. On to 2018!
Tracks, tracks, tracks – they’re everywhere in the parks after a good snowfall. Mostly they’re left by us humans and our dogs, of course, as they are in this photo of the meadow. But sometimes, tracks, distant bird calls, empty nests reveal hints of who’s exploring the park when we’re not there. Or, in the case of gorgeous ice crystals on a puddle, or a huge beaver lodge, we discover what’s occurred when we weren’t looking.
Who’s Been Here While We Weren’t?
Heading into Cranberry Lake Park with the birders one morning, we stopped at Ben’s urging to listen to the distant call and tapping of a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus.)(Listen at this highlighted Cornell link under “typical voice.”) These very large woodpeckers make huge rectangular holes as they create nest holes or search for carpenter ants in trees. According to Cornell Lab, the holes offer shelter later to swifts, owls, wood ducks and other birds. We never got to see this huge member of the woodpecker family that morning, but even hearing it, you sense real wildness close by. Joan Bonin, a township birder, took this excellent picture of a Pileated Woodpecker on a cherry tree in her back yard. Thanks for sharing, Joan!
Winter nights at the park must be full of scurrying animals. An Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) went bounding across a wooden platform at the edge of a trail (left below). To hop, rabbits push off with their front paws (center photo) and swing their powerful back legs forward – hence the shape of their tracks (right). Wonder if this cottontail was fleeing something or just full of exuberance on a snowy night? (Hover for captions; click on photo to enlarge.)
The evidence of a bounding rabbit on a wooden platform left by the trail.
A hopping rabbit shows how its front paw prints end up behind back paw prints.
Rabbit track – the back foot prints are in front.
Meanwhile, out in the meadow, a White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) must have stopped to explore a clump of exposed grass, and then another. Mice don’t hibernate in winter; that’s why they sometimes seek warmth and food in our houses! After a rain, you can sometimes spot tunnels mice dig under the snow to keep out of sight. Thanks to Creative Commons Photographer Greg Lasley for his photo of this little nighttime adventurer.
A mouse investigated these exposed areas in the snow during the night.
White-footed Mouse photo by Greg Lasley (CC BY-NC)
Mice tunnels under the snow show up after a rain
According to a delightful article in the New York Times, occasionally mice use their prehensile tails to climb small trees; line an abandoned nest with grass, milkweed fluff and feathers; tuck a snack under the lining and spend the night! So I probably should have looked more closely at this nest which may have been made by an American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis), since it’s cup-shaped and wedged between several branches in a small tree.
Perhaps a mouse at Cranberry Lake could tuck some of these Highbush Cranberries (Viburnum trilobum) into an abandoned nest for a midnight snack.
Heading north from the meadow, a straight line of round prints led from the path to a pond. Two Canid prints, one on the top of the other, appeared inside each of these tracks in fluffy snow. I’m guessing it was a fox. Foxes travel in a straight line to save as much energy as they can while foraging. They also place their back foot inside the track of front one, probably for the same reason. (Dogs get fed, so their tracks wander all over the place!) The fox (if that’s what it was!) that left the tracks to the pond seemed to be headed out onto the icy pond – perhaps an easier path for a light animal than going through the brush. The fox on the right is a Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) I saw trotting at dusk near our home.
On the path to Cranberry Lake, night wanderers left their marks. The birders noticed tracks (left below) of White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) heading, like the fox, toward a frozen forest pool. We surmised that a Raccoon (Procyon lotor) left the five-toed tracks (center photo) which spread as the snow melted and then got covered in ice after a freezing rain. A possum waddled along under the shrubbery leaving its tiny pairs of five-pointed tracks (right) as it nosed in the snow.
Deer tracks heading through the forest toward a frozen pool
Raccoon tracks which melted and then were covered with a layer of freezing rain.
The small five-toed track of a possum
What Occurred When We Weren’t Looking?
One morning, a shallow puddle on the path had turned to ice but, wow! The surface was covered with 3 dimensional ice crystals, like tiny, leafy ice sculptures all over the puddle.
According to a website called SnowCrystals.com, these crystals are called Ice Dendrites. They form at low temperatures and high humidity, a condition which had occurred the previous night. The word “dendritic” means “tree-like,” and indeed these do branch. I don’t remember seeing these free-standing ice crystals before, so I sat down in the snow and took a closer look. Amazing!
Near the large pond in the center of the park, the dark fertile leaves (or fronds) of the Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis)poked out of the snow. The underground stem of this plant (called a rhizome) is fed through photosynthesis by its large bright green leaves of summer. But the rhizome also produces separate, specialized dark fronds which are fertile and small enough to go unnoticed (at least by me!) in the summer. They support clusters of sporangia, little brown beads which contain the spores that will sail off in the wind next summer to start new plants. They give this interesting plant its other name, Bead Fern. Fascinating that these two photos are different leaves/fronds of the same plant.
One icy morning I took a walk out onto Cranberry Lake. People were skating and ice fishing on the opposite side of the lake. As I looked to my left, I caught sight of the very large lodge of a North American Beaver (Castor canadensis).
According to Northern Woodlands.org, beavers build lodges with branches, debris and grass, coating the surface with mud but leaving ventilation at the top. The entrance is safely under the water. Then they cut fresh branches and anchor them to mud on the lake bottom nearby so they can feed on the bark in the winter. You can see some protruding from the ice in front of of the lodge.
Inside, the lodges have a feeding platform just above the water and a higher, drier sleeping platform covered with shredded wood fibers and grass. Beavers store fat in their tails, which shrink over the winter as the fat is used up. With a family of beavers inside plus snow and mud insulation, it’s a relatively snug place to spend the winter. So glad I could get out on the ice to see it!
Winter Requires Eyes, Ears and Imagination
Winter walks are more challenging, but they have their compensations. It’s fun to be the first to step onto a pure white path on a snowy morning. Blue forest shadows make patterns on the untrod snowy trail.
Birds are fewer, more furtive and some are less colorful in the winter months, but hearing their group singing in a thicket or a distant call or tap is a companionable sound on a cold morning.
Tracks leading hither and yon help us imagine a moonlit night with a fox trotting across an icy pond or deer running with their white tails flashing in the darkness. Following tracks like an amateur detective makes winter walking a bit of an adventure as we imagine the unseen world of Cranberry Lake on a winter night.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows:
Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; Birds of North America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes; Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich; Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia)and websites linked in the text.